Gussie Haynie (1901–1957)

Gussie Haynie was one of Arkansas’s best-known woman lawyers in the late 1930s. She was pioneer in Arkansas in championing the rights of poor divorced women and destitute children. She was the first woman appointed a deputy prosecuting attorney and the first woman to hold an executive-level cabinet position in the state’s government, heading the Department of Public Welfare from 1937 to 1939. She sought to modernize the state’s welfare programs’ administration, including introducing civil service standards for personnel. She was abruptly removed from her position in 1939.

Gussie Faye Haynie was born on June 13, 1901, in Pulaski County. (Her exact place of birth is not certain.) She was the older of two daughters of J. M. “Mike” Haynie and Mary F. Haynie; her younger sister was Tressie H. Haynie. J. M. Haynie was the sheriff and collector for Pulaski County in the late 1920s. In 1929, while being investigated by a grand jury for taking bribes to protect an illegal “roadhouse” operation outside Little Rock, he abruptly resigned and left the state.

Haynie graduated from Little Rock High School and received her license to practice law before the Arkansas Supreme Court on July 10, 1922, even before graduating from the Arkansas Law School the following June. She started as a deputy clerk of the Pulaski County Chancery Court, serving for five years before joining the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office in 1926, first as a deputy sheriff, then becoming chief clerk. At some point, she started working on cases involving domestic relations, representing (for free) poor divorced or separated women and deserted children seeking financial support from the men who had deserted them.

In his 1931 reelection campaign to remain the Sixth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney, Carl E. Bailey promised to appoint a woman to handle domestic relations cases. On January 1, 1931, Bailey appointed Haynie to be his office’s “domestic relations attorney.” In her first eighteen months, Haynie handled nearly 600 cases involving 1,400 women and children. She said all the cases she handled were social problems whose solution was a community responsibility.

She was one of four women who graduated on June 1, 1932, from the Little Rock School of Social Work. Her graduation talk, “Development of the Family Court,” reflected her thinking about the need to establish a family court, not to “end family disorganization,” but with an aim to repair the effects of a broken home.

In March 1933, Bailey appointed Haynie to be a deputy prosecuting attorney in his office for domestic relations—the first woman deputy prosecutor in the state—though in accepting the promotion Haynie had to accept a reduced salary.

Throughout her career, she spoke at conferences on a range of family-related issues. She made a study of the juvenile court laws of Arkansas, which led to reforms in the Pulaski County Juvenile Court. She sought to prevent ill-advised marriages, which she frequently encountered in her work, by supporting a law requiring advance five-day notice of the intent to marry and setting a minimum age of eighteen for marriage without parental consent (she estimated that 600,000 married couples in the United States in 1935 consisted of boys and girls who were both under sixteen years of age).

Haynie was head of the legislative committee of the Little Rock Business and Professional Woman’s Club, where she focused on social legislation. Commenting in December 1934 on pending New Deal legislation, she said, “Our job as citizens of the state is to see that our legislature falls in line with the national program, co-operating wherever possible, and taking up where the national plan leaves off.”

In 1935, she drafted legislation to create a second division of the Pulaski County Chancery Court to be called the Domestic Relations Court, and she drafted two other bills, one to revise the laws governing the probate and juvenile courts and the other to require an investigation by a social agency as a prerequisite to adoption of a child.

In his 1936 campaign for governor, Bailey pledged to reorganize the state’s welfare agencies. With Haynie’s help, Bailey modified a bill originally drafted for the incumbent Junius Marion Futrell’s administration and submitted it to the Arkansas General Assembly. Known as the 1937 Welfare Law (Act 41), it passed on February 4, 1937. As the federal Social Security Board required, the 1937 Welfare Law reorganized the state’s Department of Public Welfare. Haynie had added probational work and aid to “crippled” children to the department’s functions.

In February 1937, Bailey appointed Haynie to head the Welfare Department, the state’s largest department in terms of number of employees (around 400) and budget. No woman had ever held a cabinet-level executive post in the state’s government before. Upon assuming the position of commissioner of the Department Public Welfare, Haynie immediately had to draft an operating plan for the new department and submit it along with a copy of the 1937 Welfare Law to the federal Social Security Board for approval. Her plan was approved in March, qualifying Arkansas to receive matching federal grants under the 1935 Social Security Act for aid to the needy aged, dependent children, and the blind.

Haynie said her mission was to make “an unbiased effort to assist and benefit the indigent, the underprivileged, the maladjusted and sick of Arkansas.” By 1938, under her administration, one out of every four Arkansans sixty-five years of age or older was receiving assistance.

As the first woman to hold an executive post, Haynie faced challenges to her authority heading the Welfare Department. Members of the seven-member State Board of Public Welfare asserted that Haynie had to report to them and not directly to the governor. They passed a resolution essentially saying that Haynie had no executive authority to hire and fire department employees on her own. Almost a year later, the state’s attorney general finally issued a public statement that, as executive head of the Welfare Department, Haynie was uniquely authorized by Act 41 to perform all the executive functions of the department, thus nullifying the Welfare Board’s resolution.

Some members of the Welfare Board also strongly objected to Haynie’s plan to place the Welfare Department’s personnel under civil service standards. This step was central to Haynie’s plan to modernize the department’s administration and a requirement imposed by the federal Social Security Board. It took multiple meetings between federal government representatives, Governor Bailey, and the chairman of the Welfare Board to affirm Haynie’s plan.

In February 1939, Bailey—pushed by William Abington and other legislators who disliked Haynie—summarily fired her. A newspaper account explained the decision thusly: “‘Women and politics don’t mix,’ a high official explained….Political pressure to make a change was brought to bear on the administration because ‘many legislators and others were embarrassed when they were forced to transact business with a woman.’”

After her firing, Haynie joined the staff of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in Arkansas in 1939 and was appointed a WPA district administrator in 1941.

Haynie married Claude E. Nicholas and moved to Seattle, Washington, where she died on October 23, 1957. She is buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

For additional information:
“Civil Service Welfare Work Wins Praise.” Arkansas Gazette, August 15, 1937, p. 5.

“The Day’s WorkDeputy Prosecuting Attorney Is Champion of Deserted Wives and Children.” Arkansas Gazette Special Feature, September 11, 1932, p. 1.

“Domestic Relations Attorney’s Collections for 1933 Doubled.” Arkansas Gazette, Part II, December 31, 1933, p. 5.

Holley, Donald. “Carl E. Bailey, the Merit System and Arkansas Politics, 1939–1939.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 45 (Winter 1986): 291–320.

“Miss Haynie Appointed Welfare Head.” Arkansas Gazette, February 7, 1937, p. 1.

“Politics Seen in Ousting of Welfare Chief.” Arkansas Gazette, February 25, 1939, p. 1.

William Finan
Miami, Florida


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